Life and Times
Platina was an Italian Renaissance writer now known in the food world for his cookbook written in Latin, “Concerning Honest Pleasure and Well-Being” (“De honesta voluptate et valetudine.”) The word “honesta” in the title has long been translated as “honest”, but it would perhaps be better translated as “wholesome.”
Outside the food world, he is best known for another book of his, “Lives of the Popes.”
“Concerning Honest Pleasure” was the first cookbook to come off a printing press. Platina uses his table of contents to break the book down into ten chapters, and subdivides each chapter heading in the table of contents into subjects, with page numbers. The first half of the book concerns food and spices: what they are like and how they are obtained. The second half is mainly plagiarized from Maestro Martino de Rossi’s Italian cookbook. At the start of the second half of the book in chapter six, Platina does, though, acknowledge Martino as his friend and as the source of most of his recipe ideas. Overall, there are 250 recipes in the book; 240 are from Martino, the remaining 10 are from Apicius.
Platina goes beyond food to well-being in general, even covering how to build a house, how to exercise, and what to eat at what time of year. He believed in the four humour theory of health, as did his contemporaries. Much of his knowledge was based on Roman sources such as Apicius, Pliny’s Natural History, Cato, Columella, C. Matius and Varro.
Despite his theme of living healthfully, he still included many of the luxurious recipes of his times. Many of those — such as sow’s udder — came down directly from Roman delicacies for the ultra-rich.
Platina does comment, though, on many of the recipes, saying whether he thinks they are healthy or not. About the more indulgent, less-healthful recipes he says with a bit of a knowing smile, “serve it to your enemy”, because he judges them good to tempt anyone, but very unhealthy, in the same way that we might refer to some of our favourite dishes today as “heart attack on a plate.”
His recipes, such as that for a cheesecake dish made from ricotta cheese, don’t give exact guidelines, and ingredient quantities are just suggestions. He advises readers not to let the food get smoky (an issue back when cooking was done by or over open fires.) Some of the items he considered as fish wouldn’t be considered as fish by us today: lampreys, scorpions and sea-lions.
Platina’s actual name was Bartolomeo Sacchi. He was born near Cremona in a village called Piadena in 1421; “Piadena” was called “Platina” in Latin, and his nom de plume, “Platina”, comes from that. When he was young, he was a soldier briefly, then went to Mantua to tutor the children of Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga. From there he went to Florence and tutored for the Medici, and studied Greek under a man named “Argyropulos.”
Chronology of his career
- 1462 — At the age of 41, Platina came to Rome. Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1444 — 1483) of the Gonzaga family in Mantua gave him his first job in Rome, as his secretary.
- 1464 — In 1463, Pope Pius II (pope from 1458 — 1464) had reorganized the College of Abbreviators, the church department that drafted papal bulls, etc. and increased the number of members of 70. In May of 1464, Platina was elected as a member of this college. Then, tragedy strikes Platina’s easy advance in life: Pope Pius II died, and was replaced by Pope Paul II. Paul II cancelled Pius’s II enlargement of the college, and Platina was thrown out of work. Unhappy, Platina wrote a pamphlet that he distributed publicly demanding that Paul II cancel his cancellations, and called for a General Council of the Church. He was called before the Pope, was disrespectful, and was tossed in prison at Castle of Sant’Angelo to cool off for four months. He was released on the proviso that he agree to remain in Rome. Platina fell in with Julio Pomponio Leto (1428 — 1498), who in 1464 had founded the “Roman Academy” to revive the study of classical works. Members of the “Academy” would wear togas, celebrate Rome’s founding on 21st April each year, put on Roman plays and banquets, etc. They gave each other Roman nicknames: Platina’s was “Calvus”, meaning “bald.” Rumours circulated in Rome of lewd behaviour and pagan activities. Platina and Leto also earned some money doing some proof-reading for Georg Lauer von Würzburg, a German printer who had set up in Rome at the San Eusebio cloister.
- 1468 — In February, Platina and twenty other members of the Academy were arrested on charges of conspiring against the pope’s life, and of heresy (his companions were “humanists.”) The conspiracy charge had to be dropped, though, as the evidence was insufficient even for the Church at the time, and they were acquitted on the heresy charge. Still, Platina spent more than a year in jail while this was all sorted out. In the same year, Platina finished writing “Concerning Honest Pleasure” (the manuscript is dated 1468.) If this is so, then may he have written at least part of it while in prison, and his prison term wouldn’t have been too onerous — he would have been allowed access to reference books. Some people suggest, though, that the book was written between 1463 and 1465, with him perhaps finishing it off in prison, perhaps finishing it in the latter half of 1469 after he was released from prison.
- 1469 — On the 7th July, Platina is released from jail. He continues his writing.
- 1471 — Pope Sixtus IV is elected.
- 1472 — Platina started his book, “Lives of the Popes” (aka Liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum.)
- 1474 — A first, early, small-run print edition of “Concerning Honest Pleasure” is done. The edition is undated, but it is believed to have been done in Rome in 1474, by Ulrich Hahn (aka Udalricus Gallus), a German printer who had set up shop in Rome by 1467. Hahn died in 1478 or 1479.
- 1474 — In November, Platina finished writing “Lives of the Popes.” His book painted Paul II in a very bad light, an impression which lasted for the next few centuries until scholars dug up a more balanced viewpoint of the poor Pope. He presented the manuscript to Sixtus IV.
- 1475 — On the 13th June, the second edition of “Concerning Honest Pleasure” is published at Venice.
- 1475 — Sixtus IV issues a papal bull, officially establishing the Vatican Library. The popes had always had a library of some sort, and dedicated rooms for the unofficial collections of books had been tentatively designated from 1451 to 1455 under Pope Nicolas V until he died, whereupon the momentum was lost. The librarian of the unofficial collection had been a man named “Giovanni Andrea Bussi” (aka Johannes Andreas de Buxis, 1417 — 1475.) When Bussi died in the first half of 1475, leaving the post open, the library had 1,200 manuscripts.
- 1475 — On 15 June, Platina is appointed Prefect at the Vatican library. He would hold the job for the remainder of his life. Melozzo da Forlì (1438 — 1494), in his fresco of this event called “Sixtus IV and Platina” painted around 1480, paints Platina, who would have been 55 at the time, as a man in his 30s. Still, that such a fresco was commissioned (for the Pinacotheca Vaticana, where it still is today) of this event shows that Platina had risen to the point where he was considered worthy of an official painting commissioned by the Pope. Platina was paid 120 ducats a year, plus given a free apartment in the Vatican.
- 1479 — Platina’s “Lives of the Popes” was published in Venice.
- 1480 — The third edition of “Concerning Honest Pleasure” is published in Cividale del Friuli by Gerardo da Fiandra.
- 1481 — The Vatican Library had grown to over 3,500 manuscripts.
- 1481 — Platina died in Rome from the plague on 21 September 1481. Bartolomeo Manfredi becomes Vatican librarian.
- 1505 — The first French translation of “Concerning Honest Pleasure” was published in Lyons by Didier Christol. This was also the first edition that was not in Latin.
- Vitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XX (published 1479)
- De principe
- De vera nobilitate
- De falso et vero et bono
- De honesta voluptate et valetudine (published 1480)
- Historia inclita urbis Mantuæ et serenissimæ familiæ Gonzagæ